If you were asked about a school board election that made national headlines over polarizing debates over Critical Race Theory (CRT), the coastal town of Guilford, CT is probably not the first place that would come to mind. Yet, this small town that has previously taken progressive steps to honor the histories of enslaved peoples has been featured in Buzzfeed and AP News.
This was a result of a wave of Republican, first-time candidates who have been vocal about their opposition to what they see as the teaching of CRT in schools. Nick Cusano, a Guilford Board of Education candidate adamantly opposed to CRT, told NBC Connecticut, “Don’t divide our children into oppressors and the oppressed, that’s the basic philosophy of what’s happening here.” While CRT itself is a complex legal theory, it has become mistaken for any acknowledgment of race or privilege in the classroom. It has become a propagandistic tool to promote distrust among parents and school boards, limiting what parts of American history are taught in the classroom.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is at the forefront of the many educators who have pioneered CRT at the graduate school level. Crenshaw describes CRT as “just a way of seeing, recognizing and understanding how racial inequality has been created and how it’s continuously reproduced even in a formerly colorblind institution.” Let’s take the argument; “Black Americans are poorer than white Americans because they do not work as hard” as an example. With the application of CRT, we can unpack this false argument through a historical lens revealing – for example – how the Federal Housing Administration spent billions creating white wealth while denying the same opportunities to people of color.
But opponents of CRT have reconstructed its meaning to frame it as reverse racism. To understand the cyclical nature of this backlash, Crenshaw urges us to revisit history, back to the end of enslavement when it was argued that giving African Americans equal rights would take something away from white people. Today, this idea manifests itself as an argument that incorporating CRT into the curriculum would make white students “feel bad” because it reveals to them the racist history of their ancestors, and frames their white identity as that of an oppressor. This double standard is emphasized in the lack of concern for African American students who receive no acknowledgment in the curriculum of the systemic biases they face every day.
The common propagandistic argument frames CRT as an enemy of patriotism. Who has most to lose when people become educated about racism? Racists, specifically white people, who are benefitting from a racist system designed for them. Crenshaw explains how this cultural war stems from highlighting every issue that interrupts a white, Christian, cis, straight man’s comfort and claiming that “everybody is in the same boat,” and that “they are coming for us.” We have political leaders going as far as calling CRT “state-sanctioned racism.” Former President Donald Trump even issued a memo to federal agencies labeling CRT as “divisive,” along with an executive order banning training that included any hints of learning about racism in the United States. This spread of propaganda impedes school boards, educators, and parents’ abilities to support their students and children learning about U.S. history in a truthful way.
One of the leading arguments creating doubt and mistrust towards learning CRT is that “it could be anything.” The aim here is to label CRT as unreliable, unsupported and suspicious knowledge. Crenshaw describes this as the work of people who have a “fear-mongering, scapegoating agenda.” At the forefront is conservative scholar Christopher F. Rufo, who labeled CRT as “cult indoctrination.” A parent’s priority is their child, and once parents are persuaded by opposing ideas, the decision to not let their child study CRT would seem like one they are making to protect their children.
The merging of CRT with any acknowledgment of race and the racist history and present of the United States, especially within our polarized political climate, has created a perfect storm of educational controversy in Connecticut and beyond. “CRT” has contributed to disputes at every level from parents and teachers, to the highest levels of government. Yet, Guilford, and their headline-making school board race provides a surprising source of hope with not only Democrat and independent candidates winning the election, but with the highest percentage of voter turnout across the state. This engagement in democracy speaks to a path forward for not just Guilford, but for Connecticut and even the country as a whole; a path rooted in an understanding of just how far we have come while also recognizing the work that still needs to be done to truly achieve liberty and justice for all.
Claire Sabbe is a sophomore at Trinity College from Portland, Ore., double majoring in Educational Studies and Sociology. Azka Hassan is a Davis United World College Scholar and a Global Scholar at Trinity College from the Maldives. She is a junior, double majoring in Educational Studies and Studio Arts.